Throughout the “Middle Ages” the Catholic Church was the main form of Christianity in Europe. Because of this the Church amassed a great wealth of economic power and political control within European Nations. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther attached his 95 Theses to the local Church in Wittenburg calling for reforms to end the corrupt and immoral acts by the Catholic Church. Luther had no plans in founding a new church or overthrowing the local government. His reforms were a means to resolve his own crisis within the church. Luther’s call for reform included, limiting the political control and economic wealth the Church held, increasing congregational participation, the use of the vernacular in the church, and to announce that anyone could achieve salvation through inner religious feelings and a trust in god’s mercy and faith. He also believed that everyone could discover the meaning of the Bible unaided by the Clergy. Martin Luther reforms, was an act to bring the Church back to the people and to destroy the aristocratic control that the Clergy held over the public and national governments.
One way the Church developed their great wealth was through tithing. The Church required that you tithe a tenth of everything you made, including everything from crops and land to the livestock that was raised by the local farmers. There have even been accounts of family’s tithing their tenth child to the Church. Because everyone from peasant farmers to European Noblemen had to pay this tithing ordinance to the Church they were able to establish a large economic fortune. This fortune caused many of the Popes and Bishops to act more like kings and royalty then Christian leaders. The Catholic hierarchy would use their economic influence to control ruling members of a nation; they would buy and sell controlling seats of power within the kingdom. They would use their massive economic influence to control trade goods in and out of the country. And when feuding nations went to war, they used their influence to establish large army’s, which they would use to help the highest bidding nation, or the country they had the most influence over. This corruption of the Catholic Church was part of the reforms that Martin Luther wanted to change.
A second part of the Church’s corruption was in the form of landholding. Because of the tithing that nobleman had to perform the Church had massive landholdings throughout Europe. Their influence over ruling governments kept them from having to pay taxes on the land they claimed. This caused unrest with the nobleman in the European nations. A by product to the Church possessing so much land; was that peasant farmers were increasingly running out of land to farm and work. This caused more and more people to relocate into the towns and cities surrounding the local Church. Once the peasants had moved into these towns they could see for themselves the monster Churches that had been built and the corruption of the clergy within the Catholic Church. The peasants resented the wealth of the Church and the lavish palaces that had been built, and the nobility were jealous of the land the Church controlled.
The last system of control the Catholic Church maintained was the education of the people in the land. Because books were expensive to produce and to own, the only organization that could afford to have books produced was the Church. For this reason most commoners could not read or write and if they wanted to learn they had to become part of the Clergy. Also at this time the main language used in the church was Latin. Most, if not all of the Catholic Church spoke in Latin, the books were produced in Latin, the Church ceremonies were performed in Latin, and the education of Priest and Monks were done using Latin. Because the Church controlled the education system they were allowed to control an uneducated populace. With this control the Church’s corruption mistreatment could run rampant and unchecked. The Church used this to manipulate the town’s people to believe what they wanted them to believe and by doing so they could maintain control and power over the people. The Church used the power and control to increase their wealth by telling the general population that they could buy their way into heaven. The Catholic Church taught the belief that unless you had a death bed confession, and was totally remitted of your sins by a Priest then your soul would go to Purgatory (a place between Heaven and Hell) until it was decided by God what your final distention would be. The Church saw this as a point of exploitation and used it to convince the Christians that with monetary offerings to the Church or “Good Works” you could buy your way into Heaven. They convinced peasants and nobleman alike that with such offerings their friends, family and loved ones would no long have to spend time in Purgatory. Martin Luther claimed these indulgences or acts of “good works” did not provide salvation and that God alone can grant salvation. By doing this Luther attacked the education of the people by the Church but the structure of Church itself. He also said that the Church is spreading false doctrine to the Christians that were looking to the church for salvation.
With the increasing growth of cities and towns more and more people were observing the atrocities of the Church and more importantly they could discuss their dissatisfaction about the Clergy and the Church. Another major technological development, the Gutenberg press which allowed for books to be printed and published cheaply enough for the general public to afford, also helped to create distrust of the Church from the general public. For the first time the public or people outside of the Church were beginning to read and becoming formally educated, not only about the inner working of the Church but also about political matters as well. The Church’s spiritual rituals had become behavior that no longer spoke to the people; they began to look for something more personal. Martin Luther’s ideas and “95 Theses” appealed to the public because it made salvation a personal and individual act. Although the Church maintained that only the clergy could read and interpret the Bible and that the Clergy were “intermediaries” between individuals and god. Martin Luther “Theses” said that no priest or ceremony could mediate between god and his followers, and that Salvation lay between the individual and God alone.As a Catholic Monk, Luther understood the Church’s teachings that salvation depended on works of charity, prayer and God’s Grace. But through his studies of the Bible, Luther learned that salvation is given by God through Christ, and not by any amount of “good works”. These ideas appealed to the wealthy because they no longer had to give vast sums of money or tithe large pieces of land to the Church, yet they could still have a chance for salvation. Luther offered pride and respect to the poor, instead of servitude to the Church for salvation. By making salvation dependent on the person’s faith, Luther destroyed the need for spiritual rituals as well as the need of clergy to administer them. And by doing so Martin Luther was not only attacking the corruption of the Church but was also attacking the theology and structure of the Church.
In Response to the Martin Luther’s movement and the “95 Theses” in 1546 the Catholic Church held the “Council of Trent”. They meet to institute changes in policy and doctrine within the Catholic Church. The Church abolished corrupt practices and abuses and also gave final ruling authority to the Pope. It clarified issues of faith and the meaning of “Good Works”, and salvation. It also said that the Church would be the judge in biblical matter and demanded that the biblical scriptures be understood literally.
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